Russian President Vladimir Putin said he "couldn't care less" if Russian citizens sought to meddle in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, insisting that the Kremlin had nothing to do with the efforts.
"Why have you decided the Russian authorities, myself included, gave anybody permission to do this?" Putin asked in an often-combative interview with NBC News aired late Friday.
U.S. special counsel Robert Mueller last month indicted 13 Russians and three Russian companies and charged them with running a social-media campaign to sow political divisions in the United States and help Donald Trump win the presidency.
"So what if they're Russians?" Putin told NBC. "There are 146 million Russians. So what? I don't care. I couldn't care less.... They do not represent the interests of the Russian state."
Putin said that the indicted individuals are "not working for the government" and suggested instead, "Perhaps some of them worked for one of the candidates."
The most well-known of the Russians indicted, Yevgeny Prigozhin, has ties to Putin and the state. Prigozhin is accused of funneling money into the St. Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency, which is often described as a notorious "troll factory" and which is also named in the indictment.
Despite Mueller's 37-page indictment detailing charges against the Russians, Putin said he has seen no evidence that their actions broke any law. He was emphatic that he would never extradite the suspects to the United States to face trial.
"We in Russia cannot prosecute anyone as long as they have not violated Russian law," he said.
Putin rejected allegations that Russia sought to interfere in the election, despite the conclusion last year by U.S. intelligence agencies that he personally directed a campaign to do so in 2016.
"Could anyone really believe that Russia, thousands of miles away...influenced the outcome of the election? Doesn't that sound ridiculous, even to you?" Putin asked NBC interviewer Megyn Kelly.
"It's not our goal to interfere. We do not see what goal we would accomplish by interfering," Putin said.
The U.S. intelligence agencies concluded in January 2017 that in addition to aiding Trump, for whom they said the Kremlin had developed a clear preference, Russia's aims included undermining faith in the U.S. electoral system and denigrating Trump's main rival, Democratic Party candidate Hillary Clinton.
During the campaign, Clinton signaled that she would be tough on Russia over actions such as its interference in Ukraine, and Putin's relationship with the former secretary of state has been marked by sometimes palpable tension. As he prepared to return to the presidency in 2012 after a stint as prime minister, Putin accused Clinton of fomenting anti-government protests in Russia.
Last month, U.S. intelligence chiefs said Russian attempts to meddle in U.S. politics are continuing unabated and pose a threat to midterm congressional elections in November.
Trump himself has repeatedly refused to condemn Russia over the alleged meddling and has said that he admires Putin as a strong leader.
Putin suggested in the interview that the reason Trump has seemed deferential to him is he knew upon taking office that he needed to develop a "cooperative relationship" with Russia and thus he needed to treat his counterpart with respect.
On another issue, Putin told NBC he has no plans to change the Russian Constitution to eliminate term limits on his presidency.
"I have never changed the constitution. I have no such plans today," he said.
Some material for this article came from AFP.